Those who have tried to use the service in recent weeks say there have not been enough hotel rooms to meet the demand. They report delays in getting a room, sometimes three days or more, even though the CDC recently reduced its recommended isolation time to five days.
When Sam Bellamy tested positive for COVID on December 16, he immediately called the city’s hotline for a free hotel room. He lives in Brooklyn with two roommates, one of whom was unable to get the booster due to health issues, so he knew it would be difficult to isolate at home.
Bellamy waited for an hour and a half to register, only to realize that he would need more time to gather his work effects before being picked up by the free shuttle service offered by the city as part of his COVID-19 Isolation. Hotel Program. So he asked to be picked up the next day. But when he called back that Friday night, he was told he had not even been put in system. So he had to sign up again and start the wait again.
He started taking sponge baths in his shared bathroom instead of taking a bath without a mask, and soon expected to be in the hotel room. One of him who used the program in November told him she had been picked up in a few hours. He called the hotline daily and waited for up to two hours each time.
But it was not until the night of December 19 – three days after his diagnosis and his first attempt to secure an isolation room – that Sam was given a room at the LaGuardia Plaza Hotel in Queens.
“The first thing I did when I came here was take a shower!” he said.
As the omicron variant overwhelms New York City, residents with roommates and family they need to isolate themselves from are calling the city’s free hotel room program, called Take Care, for a safe place to recover. Launched at the start of the pandemic, the service provides participants with three meals a day, round-trip transportation, medicine delivery and more – all for free.
But as locally politicians and the media has continued to highlight the benefits of the program, and increasing COVID-19 cases appear to be straining its effectiveness. Those who have tried to use the service in recent weeks (including this reporter) say that there have not been enough hotel rooms to meet the demand. Residents report long delays in getting an isolation room, of three days or more, although the CDC recently reduced its recommended isolation time to five days.
The delays are especially worrying for people who are already homeless. COVID cases are again spreading rapidly through the city’s shelter system, where residents are often housed in assembled, dormitory rooms with several people.
An employee of a nonprofit organization that employs some homeless people told City Limits that they called the hotel hotline to try to secure a room for an employee who could no longer stay in a homeless shelter due to a COVID exposure . They waited for four hours last Wednesday, December 22, and for six hours the next day, they said – and were still unable to get through to a real person.
NYC Health + Hospitals declined to answer questions about how many isolated hotel rooms are currently contracted for the program, or what average waiting times are for the rooms, but acknowledged the capacity issues driven by rising omicron cases.
“Our Take Care hotel program has seen an increase in the number that one would expect around holidays and with the colder weather that brings people indoors. Like many other industries, staffing challenges have affected our operations, ”a City Limits representative said in a statement. “We are working to add more hotel rooms before the first week of January to accommodate visitors and residents of New York, especially those with roommates and families of several generations who might not otherwise have a safe, comfortable place to quarantine or isolate. . “
Rumors of the long waits in hotel rooms deter some New Yorkers from calling themselves. Cissy Yu, 26, took advantage of the program in November when she tested positive for COVID. Unfortunately, she contracted the virus again on December 21st. She decided that this time she would try to stay home, but was still worried about revealing her roommates.
“I assumed the hotel would be really supported because so many people have COVID right now,” she said, adding that she read about the days-long waits on a Reddit thread. “The last time I was there, a nurse mentioned that when they get a wave of patients, they are not staffed very well to handle heavy loads.”
The Omicron variant has caused such an increase. The CDC estimates that over 90 percent of COVID cases in the tri-state area are caused by the new variant. Prior to this recent increase, the hotel room system seemed to work smoothly. When Christopher Nickelson, 27, called the hotel’s hotline in mid-November, he remembers having been on hold for about five minutes and was able to schedule a pick-up the same day.
“The program was really such a lifesaver,” he said. Nickelson said he experienced several COVID symptoms and was so depleted of energy that he knew he could not cook for himself every day. LaGuardia Plaza Hotel, where he was placed, provided three meals a day, and he had regular check-in with a nurse.
Nickelson said a nurse told him that during his stay, the hotel had about half capacity. At the time, the NYC’s seven-day case average was about 1,400. The Queens hotel near the airport has 358 rooms, according to its website. As of Dec. 27, the city’s seven-day COVID case was over 20,000, after doubling in less than a week.
It is not clear whether LaGuardia Plaza is the only hotel the city uses for its isolation program; Health + Hospital officials did not respond to City Limits’ inquiries about how many sites it is currently contracting with. The Department of Homeless Services (DHS) has also rented rooms at at least four hotels specifically to homeless residents who have been exposed to or tested positive for COVID, officials said last week.
The city appears to be working to expand the Take Care program to new hotels. James Fitzgerald, 27, was given a room at the Holiday Inn at LaGuardia Airport on Dec. 16 after being tested positive. He said an employee told him that this hotel was to open later in the year, but that the city was speeding up the process of opening it that week. (The Holiday Inn did not respond to a request for comment, but its website states that the hotel has 217 rooms.)
This reporter is one of the many New Yorkers who faced this problem. I received my positive COVID result after waiting in line for a quick test for over three hours on Sunday 19 December – so I called the city’s hotel program hotline. After a two hour break, I was put in the queue and told I was going to hear about a room in 24 hours.
But that time came and went, and by subsequent daily calls I was told that they were unable to give me an estimate and that they were backed up. Nine days later I’m still home.
Have you had an experience with the city’s COVID-19 Isolation Hotel Program? Tell us about it by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org